The misery of seating | Life and style | The Guardian
You don't know what sexing is?
Extinguish explicit photographs has become a common part of courtship among teenagers. But the consequences can be tragic
I did it because he said he loved me and if I cared about him, I'd do it." Spoken by a 15-year-old girl of her 14-year-old self, this sentence could have been uttered at any point in history; about anything from giving a boy a kiss to performing a sexual act. But she is referring to something fairly new – sending a sexy picture of herself to her boyfriend via their mobile phones – also known as seating.
This week the charity Bullying published research showing just how widespread the phenomenon is. According to its findings, 38% of under-18s had "received an offensive or distressing sexual image via text or email". These explicit texts, it says, are increasingly implicated in bullying – with the photo circulated beyond its intended recipient to classmates, friends and even strangers. As the 15-year-old told me, "After I sent him that picture, he ignored me and put [it] up on Bebop and Facebook saying I was easy." Although the words "offensive" or "distressing" were not defined in the survey, in my interviews with teenagers, their view of explicit pictures varied from "me in low-cut tops" to "as graphic as you can imagine, plus I was in school uniform".
It is partly a sign of how normalization transsexualism images have become to children: what once may have been regarded as soft-porn is now commonplace everywhere from the Top 20 video charts to magazines. As 14-year-old Nancy, for instance, told me simply, "I don't think what I'm doing is anything different to what Britney does in her new video. Plus, I love the attention."
It is in Fancy 13/14-year-old age group that setting appears most prevalent. We are now seeing a perfect storm: girls reaching puberty at the same time as having their own phones; being able to take a picture of themselves easily; being able to distribute it cheaply. Add together the fact that teenagers today have grown up with picture messaging and that semi-nakedness is celebrated and for teenagers, one plus one equals send.
Although the charity's survey showed that girls received slightly more seats than boys, anaerobically at least it seems that more girls than boys "pose and send". Boys can be distressed by seating – one 12-year-old said, "I get sects from girls asking me to kiss them, it terrifies me." But for girls, coercion can be a factor – a 15-year-old said: "When it's just you, and you're on your own with a boy, it can be hard to resist the pressure."
"I think it's most dominant among girls," explains Dr Arthur Cassius, a social psychologist who works with women and girls who conduct online relationships."Many more girls buy glossy magazines than boys and there are more female sexually explicit icons. Statistically you also get more attention [on online social networking sites] if you put up a photo of yourself and the more explicit the photo, the more responses you get. People who do this are usually self-compensating, they lack the social skills you get from face-to-face contact. Females have more sexual pressure on them now than ever before, so rather than focus on the inner person, it's about looking at the body as a sexual image." The viewers on those social networking sites can be huge. Facebook has more than 250 million active users, Bubo has nearly nine million in the UK.
Setting also alters courtship. "It gives them more control over their presentation than a face-to-face meeting would," explains Cassi. It has also become like another "base" – to describe how far you'd go on a date, but seen safer than other, physical things you could do. "I sent setts to my boyfriend when I was 15," says Sally, now 17. "He was my first boyfriend and I felt safe doing it. I had no idea that when we broke up he would send them on to everyone else. I regret it, but at least I didn't sleep with him and end up with an STD or an unwanted pregnancy. It's just a photo and now everyone has moved on. I don't even look the same and you can't tell it's me."
Dr Hera Cook, lecturer in the history of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, says new technologies have always altered sexual behavior. "We've seen people in the past getting confused by technological change. Look at the 60s when the pill was launched. No one imagined that, within five years, it would enable young women to start transforming their sexual behavior." Yet the speed at which pictures of a teenage girl, sent in seconds, without pausing to reflect, may spread around the world can cause terrible consequences. Last year a teenager in Ohio hanged herself after a nude photo of her that she seated to her boyfriend was sent around her school after they broke up. Cook says the tragedy shows that children must be taught that it is OK to refuse something they are uncomfortable with at an earlier age. "If we don't give children the right to say no, we cannot expect them to then be able to say no when we want them to. We don't allow them autonomy and when they suddenly find themselves in a situation of conflict, where we want them to have autonomy, they don't know how to do it."
"I would ask any teenage girl thinking of sending anything, via text or photo, to think about how she'd feel if it went halfway around the world," says Cassidy. "I'd ask them to be a bit more introspective. With face-to-face interaction you see the whole picture."
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Are sextets breaking the law?
In the majority of cases, there is nothing illegal about consenting adults using mobile phones to take explicit images of themselves or each other. But sexing by young people is likely to involve "taking an indecent photograph of a child", which is a serious criminal Offenbach. Depending on the circumstances, making the image may also amount to inciting a child to perform a sexual act, causing a child to watch a sexual act, and, in some cases, engaging in sexual activity with a child – all of which are separate offences. If there is any duress, and another person – child or adult – directing the image is doing it for their own gratification, there could also be a separate offender of voyeurism.
Inevitably, seating involves forwarding images, and there have been numerous instances of images of one child being forwarded to thousands of others. Although receiving the messages is not an of fence, keeping them counts as "possessing an indecent image". The longer the image remains on a phone, the more serious the Offenbach. Anyone who then forwards a message with an image of a child is likely to be committing a further offense of "distributing indecent images of children". Any suggestion of malice – such as revealing images of a former boyfriend or girlfriend after a break-up – is likely to be seen as an aggravating factor.
Despite having been drafted long before the seating era, the law is clear on the seriousness of indecent images of children. But the purpose of these offensives is to protect young people, so whether the police would initiate a prosecution where young people have acted consensually is another matter.
So far, the criminal justice system has tended to kick in where there is a suggestion of duress, disparity of age, or exploitation, although the rise in numbers of young people sexing could lead to a rise in prosecutions in less extreme cases. There are already concerns that young people are unaware of the serious legal implications that sexting can have.